A Short Story by Joesph Michaels
Having taken new work for the first time in several years, and in doing so successfully withdrew herself from the interconnected web of her husband’s shortcomings, which up until then, lacking taste of her own or the framework to hang it on, she’d allowed to dictate in a few thousand small ways the warp and the weft, the textures and surfaces, of this household they’d built together, she brought home with her now exotic hearsay of coworkers, the not quite tragic jokes they shared, a foreign country of references, and almost immediately, her husband’s head vulnerable, he began to feel himself on the outside of things. New strangers were asked over for dinner, only a stewed uncle by marriage or the husband’s dull, urticaric boss like a particolored pair of red-cheeked life preservers seemed nonthreatening, as his wife’s cookery became enchanted with the secondhand recipes and ingredients of other women, while seizing what opportunities were available to elude small talk and a death by watercress he volunteered at these soirées to put the boys to bed, so that reading aloud from a decomposing TV Guide with a headlamp screwed on in the otherwise pitch dark room, he beheld his own weird absence there upon the hump of guests’ autumn coats where, beyond that, the tinnitus of wine glasses created an unfriendly, tormenting sound which fell away into the poignant hours when rides were exchanged and everyone went home. Months, a blizzard of holiday parties, a whole year of these evenings passed, made a social grove of the apartment’s farthest corners when not gone to seed under the winter of leftovers to shame them by cold meals till the next event. Were they running a small restaurant to know from strawberry forks? To have purchased for their own grapefruit spoons and a left-handed fish spatula? But in a way, that’s just what it was, and whether his protections had weakened or he simply enjoyed the new money that allowed them to behave from time to time with such lavish celebrity, even he would be forced to acknowledge he took a sort of pleasure in the napping confessions directly proceeding from each get-together successfully pulled off, when he could admit without disesteem the tensile elegance of the fish spatula, or, better yet, eke an admission of melancholy from his wife, whose depletion and simple, mental relief at no longer having to play host to a crowd’s latent ego and insecurities threw the evening, or more accurately its guest list, into a bitter half-light. A dozen or half-dozen names found their way to an uninvited pile. Slights, faux pas were recounted. Who was her uncle without a drink in his hand? Martha brought a dessert, she took the dessert home with her. Adieu, adieu to Donna, who had claimed lethal allergies to chocolate and shellfish. Yet the husband saw in her lassitude that this resentment was temporary, her conspiracies superficial, worn poorly, not to mention too jovial, feints toward his own barely enshrouded suspicions, perhaps, and as such a condescension she’d plucked from him. Elsewhere in the deep north, cinnamon caps were crisply fruiting. Bruschetta, white wine stews loomed. And it was in the course of one such conversation in particular—following a senseless affair with red paper lanterns and raw silk doilies, and a Pan-Asian menu said to be inspired by the wife’s thrilling talks with the rheumatoid crone who’d dry-clean her supervisor’s shirts—that stretched athwart the couch with this unfamiliar woman in the blue and amber dimness that spread its wash before sunrise he listened as she retold a coworker’s joke at what seemed his own expense. The joke itself was unclear. Indistinct like the two or three lights still spitting in their lanterns that were not paper but nylon. Something about substance, his weight relative to hers in the round-cornered wallet portrait she passed around like a calling card, yet the jolly tone of his wife and the anonymity of pronouns she used vis-à-vis this wisecracking coworker—this Henny Youngman of girl Fridays, this Mort Sahl of line item bookkeeping—that such a gossipmonger could have even been present a mere hour or two hence, though she denied it, scarfing down fried noodles and lobster sauce on his mother’s best blue china dinner service—forced a lush pettiness into his heart as stimulating as the idea that if he played hurt just a little he might paint himself as thoroughly persecuted, strew pangs of conscience out among the innocent with a will against which his wife would have no recourse. His body was strong, he couldn’t help it if he filled out a suit, or if that well-stuffed suit had rendered him deskbound. So he wasn’t cop material; a fireman, a bricklayer, a rail electrician, like her father, dead in the street by thirty. The secret history of Woodlawn Cemetery is a Fordham gneiss field fertilized by rich bones, the firm youthful muscles of Civil War stooges, farmers, cops, pipe welders, dead by thirty. He said these things and a host of other phrases, and if he knew, despite himself, that patience, not roiling brute force, was what a situation like this required, that without the semblance of time or pain, what he wished to lack for common understanding might burn itself out too quickly and spoil his fun, still inchmeal, by the syllable, he coaxed the story of this jeer, its mundane cruelty, from her. And her voice that was on the edge of breaking with a hesitancy that gradually replaced the at first casual and offhand tone with which she had entered the conversation, he used it ably to trap her into the awkwardness of a marital tiff, the tension that precedes a tiff. Lost, she backpedaled. A martyr in spare bedclothes, he took the couch. For though the apartment was warm, with a humid wind that flowed in waves from the dishes in the sink, the still cooling oven, aluminum trays with leftovers atop that, from his place on the couch wrapped in a closet’s worth of guest linen and blankets, he imagined the figure he cut as that of an ailing, bedridden ward. It was little Father Time out there on the coverlet, Master Paul sweating through the pull-out mattress—send pillow cases! send top sheets! another duvet! “The child is hardly as stout as I could wish.” While in another few hours, what began as a private forgery—the joke on its own though for an instant, temporarily, stinging, was neither ironclad in its offense nor particularly offensive to begin with—had grown overnight to a driving rain of idiotic gestures, of slammed doors and terrible echoes that would spread itself over the house for a full week of mornings and taut, silent suppers. With a bathroom light left on, his ablutions as loud as a consumptive’s, he would wake up their young boys, so that they, too, a pair of tender witnesses, might understand the immensity of their father’s feelings, or tarnish the glass in the apartment’s mirrors and make even hallways unnaturally difficult, the walls too thick to navigate between. For the victims of a crash, a gravity is lent to stillness, as though quiet itself were the thing to have menaced them. How strange to find his home’s silence a burden when, in part, it was he who’d created it. Of course, there were other times, times in the past, when he had been wrong. He clipped his toenails in the living room, he used her emery board, he never swept. He left the mustard out, and lumped and squeezed soap ends together to make a hideous new bar. A time not long ago, when he blamed a mild venereal disease on the cleanliness of public toilets, leapt to mind; yet shockingly, absurdly, with a mix at once of kindness and the most terrific alien disdain, a combination theretofore reserved for the insignificant gripes and half-wit scandals that had once formed their jet-set pillow talk, his wife did not bring up these events, these flaws, and, in fact, did nothing at all to roust him from this sense of his of newfound righteousness. He could try hitting her, he supposed—or had tried, threw a box of powdered detergent down another tight hallway one fraught morning, and so missed her heart by a matter of inches, as he’d used already the physical load of his outrage to make wood floors reverberate, or accuse his sons at random of being faggots raised by a treacherous whore, and once, to great satisfaction, yanked back a lobby door to their building his wife had held open for him, causing her to stumble and bruise her knee, caught between a bank of mailboxes and the doorman’s booth. Yet even by these motions, which still contained a power enough to disturb their children, if no longer his wife, it was clear his rage was thinning, becoming inane, a thing to be worked around. Down grocery aisles, in kitchens, on sidewalks, his wife worked around him like a vet would an owner, while from her new purchases of bouillon cubes, crème de menthe, pistachio ice cream—all these signs he’d come to recognize of a dinner party just then in the making—he intuited the worst: only he had stopped moving. His head low, half-penetrating the refrigerator, he contemplated these objects. Honey, figs. A knob of goats’ cheese in its foil wrapper. The rubber seal, unbroken, on a cloudy soda-lime bottle of pearl onions. The whole refrigerator smelled fresh, a dense lacquer of raw onion and garlic, vegetables in misty bags, stalks of parsley tied up in twist ties, indistinguishable amidst this bounty from the hard stone of a celery root or its flowering. When was it had they decided, exactly, that a week of nights would not last half so long if they kept each other in peaches, plums, white apricots, fruit? In the years past, how many he couldn’t say, it had been his work twice a month to clean out this space. He knew its corners, had huffed its rot. For the shelving, a damp rag in glass cleaner. Each shelf brought out, wiped down, put back again. The apartment was empty then, as it was now, his wife and children away somewhere, an after-school function, her mother’s—who knows?—a note on folded looseleaf pinned to the icebox under the magnet for a body shop, though his head stuck in this blankness, in the refrigerator’s chill, his peripheral vision no deeper than a razor’s scratch, the knocking of pipes could have been his children talking. And it may well have been these very objects he was contemplating, innocent things, the nature of which suggested that though he was alone blameless shadows had preceded him, but for the first time in what felt like years, he could force his way through lamely, past fear and his exhausting prattle, to a state like an infant’s sleep, an insane pride in his wife and marriage, that coming home from such a storm they should for no reason have remained intact. He sought to return to her, then did. That weekend, driving back on Heathcliff roads from a wedding reception at a Long Island banquet hall, he raged with untenable finality about a jacket he’d left in the coat room there. They’d driven an hour, another hour to go. On eastbound lanes, drivers abandoned their vehicles in the heavy traffic of a paving outfit. They stood on fenders, wandered the crowd. Though it was night, and bitterly cold, the stars were out; a family of four laid a picnic blanket right there on the roadside. A circle of men, smoking cigars, dealt pinochle from the top of a Buick’s hood. But in the car, he swore and pouted; from the back seat, the older boy giggled briefly. His words no longer had power, nor was he especially giving them power. The coat, the jacket—a silence, nothing, nothing. “You wanted me to lose it, you all wanted me to lose it,” he raged into the car that smelled of clove, mold, glyceride, orange. On the other side of the highway, a foot-race broke out between passengers of the stalled vehicles. They passed women dancing and games of tag, young lovers splayed across hardtops. And in a limited but profound way—for it was winter again, and Christmas was coming, and at no point whatever had this past of theirs fully ceased to exist—he thought of this last tantrum as a holiday gift to his wife and family, their family, he supposed, a reason once more to find him pitiable and small and wrong.
Joseph Michaels is a graduate of Hamilton College and the Columbia MFA program. His work has been or will be featured in Passages North and in an upcoming anthology from Dostoyevsky Wannabe Press. He teaches English and moonlights as a freelance copyeditor.